Where's the Sex in All of This?

Sex, and I do mean genital activity and everything surrounding it, is such a great thing. It is a means of communicating between people that can embody a range of possible messages.

It can be intimate and close or detached and distant whether it is sex with a committed partner or a "one night stand." If we are clear about what we are doing, we can choose what any sexual encounter means.

But that's the rub, so to speak. We are seldom clear about what's going on when we have sex.

Our culture has done everything it can to pass on its sickness about sex to all of us. And it has installed these sick messages into us so deeply that we have difficulty sorting them out and clearing them from both our consciousness and our unconscious.

We are told that sex is the key to everything. Sex sells. And the insecurities that our society installs in us drive home the message that buying something else will make us more sexually appealing according to the standard of "appealing" driven by consumption.

Then such sexiness will get us the human closeness we really want. But that's a false promise.

If it were true, we might actually find closeness and quit buying stuff. Our ravenous economy can't afford such fulfillment.

We are also conditioned to believe that sex is not one of many possible ways of expressing closeness but a means to achieve closeness with someone. For men the further cultural message is that sex is the only means of getting close.

The dominant religious sexual morals ingrained in us successfully divert our attention in order to maintain the political, economic, and religiously controlling status quo. With all the condemning and shaming messages about sex, our psyches fill with guilt over our sexualities.

This ensures that our energy will never threaten what is really wrong with this culture -- the systemic anti-human institutions that are profit-oriented and coping-oriented and not functional for human beings and their healing. It's our personal sicknesses that need changing, we are to believe, not the crazy-making system.

When we actually act sexually with all these messages, we run up against the further cultural message that sex is somehow dirty and shameful, particularly if we happen to enjoy it. That old message is something like: "Sex is dirty; save it for the one you love."

Bill and Monica were the actors in a drama some called a "Monicathon." It played on this message of shame, with Congress and the media denying that it was "about sex" while they voyeuristically went into details about oral sex as if that was sordid itself.

If this general message of dirt weren't bad enough, LGBTQ people are taught that their sex is even dirtier. The shame that LGBTQ people carry is doubled.

Sometimes this means that we get high with the thrill of breaking the rules, of doing something "dirty," of possibly getting caught, or of being a rebel against all the limits of parents and authorities. That high has little to do with the person we are with and loses its appeal when it is not directed against our oppressors.

At other times our shame acts out in guilt: in the inability to look into the eyes of the real person we are in bed with, or the lack of desire to even speak to the person with whom we've just cum because the whole thing after the orgasm feels dirty and shameful. We just want to escape that shame as quickly as possible by falling asleep or heading out the door.

LGBTQ national politics is dominated by this shame today. Michael Warner in his important book, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999), exposes a "politics of shame" which lies behind much national LGBTQ leadership as it works to put homosexual sex out of sight in order to gain acceptance and love from the dominant "straight" culture (that's "straight," the culturally-conditioned role and its restrictions, not "heterosexual," the orientation).

These leaders argue that we must look like "straight people"outwardly to gain their love, a strategy that has not ended racism or any other oppression.

The deeper problem is that people of heterosexual orientation are also sick about sex. They need the help of people who are outside the sickness to see this. They don't need us to join them in promoting the dysfunction. They don't need us to say, "I don't want to be known by my sexual orientation."

They don't need us to live out our shame so we reinforce their ideas about our shamefulness. They don't need us to talk about being "post-gay" as if we have attained anything other than what Urvashi Vaid called a "virtual equality" (rather than a real one) in her analysis of where we've come (Virtual Equality,1995).

LGBTQ people have the possibility of getting beyond all this and being healthy models to counter the "normal" culture of sexual sickness. We really do.

But not if we set our goal on looking like "normal people," and not if we don't get clear about what this fun, playful, intimate thing called sex really is.

[Originally published in Gay Today, January 28, 2002]


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